With the Montreal Impact set to take on Club America in the Azteca Stadium tonight in Mexico City, I can’t help but feel that this year’s CONCACAF Champions’ League is a bit of an anomaly.
Consider first the fact that just one Liga MX team remained in the group of four semifinalists. Then consider that two of those semifinal teams came from Costa Rica and one came from the (gasp) MLS. MLS teams have historically been terrible in the CCL, a competition dominated by Liga MX clubs, so Montreal’s ascendency comes as quite the surprise. With roughly 60,000 tickets sold for the home leg of the final in Olympic Stadium in Montreal, the Impact have plenty to look forward to in the second leg, but first they will have to get past 100,000+ screaming America fans in a sold out Azteca. Regardless of the result, the attendances at this final demonstrate a growth in the CCL, and its establishment as the premier club competition on the continent.
For Montreal the answer is simple: park the bus and hit America on the counter attack. The Impact are clear underdogs in this final (America are favored by nearly two goals) and if they have any chance of surviving, it will be on the back of a stellar defensive performance. The likes of Jack McInerney, Marco Donadel and Piatti will have to be ready when their number is called, because in Azteca, goals are few and far between for visiting sides, especially those not from Mexico. Just ask the national team. Montreal will have to play ugly, negative soccer to prevent the America onslaught in Azteca, hoping to bring the Mexican side back to Canada in a packed Olympic Stadium, where hopefully the Impact can snag a victory and overcome a tie or a manageable deficit.
America’s chances, while they are favored, will likely come down to the play of Dario Benedetto, the hero of the semifinal for the Mexican club. Benedetto scored four goals in the return leg of their semifinal matchup against Heridiano, singlehandedly erasing the 3-0 first leg deficit facing his club. If Benedetto can snag a goal early and ignite the Azteca crowd, it could be a very long night for the Impact. After all, Vegas never lies, and the odds of a 1-0 Impact victory are nearly the same as 5-0 in favor of America.
The Mexican side has the chance to set the tone of this game early, and if they can get a goal, rather than get frustrated by the negativity of Montreal, it will cause the Azteca crowd to erupt and likely propel America on to victory.
Ultimately, this game is a matchup of David and Goliath, but after all, isn’t that what fans have wanted out of the CCL since the competition changed in 2008? In the six finals previous to this one, just one non-Liga MX side has taken the field when Real Salt Lake lost to Monterrey in 2011.
For Montreal to make the final, they have already overcome numerous teams favored against them and truly embraced their role as an underdog. Additionally, while the rivalry between the United States and Canada has raged on for decades in other sports, from a soccer perspective, it pales in comparison to the U.S. rivalry with Mexico.
Thus, the entirety of MLS seems to have thrown support behind Montreal, placing an important step in the growth of this league on the shoulders of the Impact. If Montreal can pull off this upset, the first continental championship by an MLS club, it will put MLS on the world’s stage as a top league in North America. That’s a cause for an underdog to fight for, and for fans, one worth believing in.